Summer had arrived in Kashmir, tourists were coming in droves and India’s ‘paradise’ was in business. One day — July 8 — was all it took to shatter that picture postcard.
In the 40 days since that day, when security forces killed Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, the Valley has become a ghost town, an extended curfew barely keeping a fragile peace. Shattered glass, stones and bricks on the streets speak of the clashes that erupted in protest against the killing of Wani, the 22-year-old local who had become the poster boy of militancy in Kashmir. The violence left 65 dead and thousands injured.
Schools, colleges and businesses remain closed, mobile internet is down, phones don’t ring. The first wave of violence has given way to an uneasy calm, shattered every now and then by groups of youngsters coming out to challenge the securitymen.
The scene is all too similar to the summers of 2008 and 2010. And yet, it’s different.
“We saw protests and killings in 2008 and 2010. But they were nothing like today. Those years, we were counting the dead. This time, the thousands of injured — most of them crippled or blinded for life — are a constant reminder of what has gone wrong,” said human rights activist Khurram Parvez.
The 2010 protests, a result of the death of 17-year-old Tufail Mattoo in police firing, left around 120 people dead. In 2008, an environmental campaign against the transfer of land to the Amarnath shrine board snowballed into violence that left close to 70 dead.
This year, Kashmir watchers said, may go down as one of the bloodiest in the state’s history.
The official number of injured civilians stands at 4,000 but Parvez said “ground reports put the figure at more than double” that number.
In 2010, the protests were restricted to Srinagar, Baramulla, Sopore and Anantnag. This time, the entire Valley is affected. “The centre of unrest is the rural areas. In 2010, it was urban-driven,” said former chief minister Omar Abdullah, adding that Srinagar and other “relatively peaceful areas” were being drawn into the protests.
“The intensity, spontaneity and spread is unprecedented. Areas that were relatively peaceful last time have erupted. Unfortunately, the way the government is responding makes it seem like it is at war with the people of Kashmir,” said social scientist Prof Noor Ahmad Baba.
Another difference, according to experts, is that the trigger this time is not a human rights issue. “The protests were in support of a slain militant. Thousands participated in the funeral and they were dealt with bullets. One killing led to more anger, more protests and more killings,” said Parvez.
Senior journalist Sheikh Mushtaq said, “This time, it’s about people’s anger. If the previous generations were anti-India, this generation hates India.”
The hanging of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru in 2013 lit the fire, and the PDP’s decision to join hands with the rightwing BJP to form the government in 2015 fed that flame, said the experts. “Burhan’s death was the spark that made the volcano erupt,” said Mushtaq.
Protesters are also less fearful this time. “The government has exhausted all deterrents but the protests show no sign of waning. Students are losing precious school time but nobody is talking about that. Businessmen are supporting the protests,” said Parvez.
Mushtaq blamed the “indifference” of the Centre and state. In 2010, the UPA government at the Centre and the National Conference-Congress coalition in the state had sent teams to affected areas, which submitted a final report in October 2011.
“Tempers were lowered by an all-party delegation that even spoke to the separatists. Some initiatives were taken. But this time, the Centre and state want to tire out the people. Exhaustion may ultimately set in but it will be very dangerous,” he said.
Congress general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad said, “By the time the (UPA-era) report was formalised, elections were announced. This report can still be used as a reference by the current government.”
Mushtaq said if issues were not addressed now, they would leave “deep scars that might lead towards militancy”.
“An unresolved 2010 created Burhan and led to thousands attending his funeral six years later. If 2016 is left unresolved, I don’t know what this will lead to,” agreed Parvez.